Kiribati Revisited

My experiences of preparing and working as a sound recordist in Kiribati – 2017

Kiribati Revisited

I’m back in Kiribati again with film maker Sara Penrhyn Jones Our first visit here was in January 2015 for an academic research project that she was leading, called ‘Troubled Waters‘ looking at the effects of sea level rise on the culture and heritage of vulnerable coastal communities in the UK and in Kiribati. I was involved with the work in Kiribati, an island nation consisting of 33 low-lying coral atolls in the Equatorial Pacific. We crossed the international date line to reach this country (via Fiji), so widely dispersed in the Pacific Ocean. Back then, on one of our first trips around the most densely populated of Kiribati’s islands, South Tarawa, we were told ‘this is our highest point above sea level, three metres.’ Having lived in mountainous Mid Wales for the last twenty years of my life, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat vulnerable and the potential effects of even a modest rise in sea level were immediately apparent on a narrow strip of land where, at some locations it’s possible to see the lagoon on one coast and the ocean on the other. There is just an estimated 2min walk (if that) between the two.

Sara, now a Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University, had received more funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK to pursue further collaborative research in Kiribati. This time, local partners were more heavily involved, and we wanted to try to create a very rich, joyous and sensory representation of Kiribati’s heritage, that might counteract the more typical ‘drowning paradise’ cliche of global media. This new project ‘Enduring Connections’ included the academics Dr. Anna Woodham (Kings College London) and Dr. Bryony Onciul (University of Exeter). Bryony, an expert on heritage travelled with us during the first ten days of the research visit as well as Natan Itonga, an artist and resident of South Tarawa, who we met on our first visit here in 2015. Crucially, Natan had previously spent ten years mapping the diverse cultural heritage of Kiribati, and has helped interpret the cultural meaning of the rich soundscape.

My role as sound recordist is to not only record sound for any resultant film outputs but to help the research team explore sound and listening as a research tool. I am not an academic, I hasten to add, but a freelance location sound recordist; my usual work is on TV documentaries and series. What I learned on my last trip here is that filming for academic research is hugely liberating for me. With TV work there’s invariably a commissioning editor who wants a programme that will deliver to their audience demographic. Consequently, the schedule that I’d ordinarily work to would include ‘set pieces’, interviews with key contributors to draw out whatever the required story is and a rough shot list, all of which would serve to satisfy an end client, effectively. But with this project in Kiribati the filming (and my practice as part of that) IS the research and therefore there are no preconceptions about what we’ll record necessarily (aside from a focus on heritage as a theme). This gives us great scope to respond in the moment to things that we see and hear and this has developed in me, a new way of thinking about my practice and has played an important role in my professional development.

When Noise Becomes Sound

‘Noise’ and ‘Sound’ are distinctly different things; noise being simply unwanted sound. With TV work there are lots of unwanted sounds: nearby music playing, air conditioning fans, a washing machine, a fridge, a lawn mower, an aeroplane, a contributor fiddling with loose change, loud footsteps nearby, even a rumbling stomach, for example. Anything that isn’t the sound that I actually need to capture, is considered noise and mitigating measures need to be made (such as eliminating or reducing the level of the source or relocating, for example). However, with sound recording for research, the only unwanted sounds have been inauthentic to our surroundings and, so far, brought about purely by our presence; local kids gathering around us, friendly, curious, chatty and keen to practice their English, or unwanted sounds generated by our small team of people. Authentic sound whether pleasant, or not, requires our attention to understand it, to listen and decipher, to interpret through various lenses (local and specialist).

With my senses accustomed to a variety of UK soundscapes (regional, rural, urban etc) it’s easy at first to notice unique sounds when stepping into a new and dramatically different environment; sounds that fall outside of my predictive memory that have yet to be mapped to a source, a name, a meaning, an understanding. I’ve noticed that once they HAVE been mapped, their instances become less remarkable and the urge to hit ‘record’, less strong. In affect, without practicing a form of conscious listening, I might miss really useful, important, even beautiful recordings.

Here in Kiribati for example, whilst I’m very familiar with the sound of a cockerel crowing in the UK, the shear number of birds that are kept in close proximity by each household make for an awakening like I’ve never experienced before. The cockerels call almost every hour from 2am, each subsequent performance subtly keener than the last, until between 05.00 and 06.00 when in full cry, only the drunk, sedated, or those blessed with ear-plugs, might continue their slumber. Or the spontaneous breaking into song of people of all ages. For example, the men collecting ‘toddy’ (the sweet sap of the coconut tree, used as a syrup or fermented into an alcohol) who, in the mornings will climb the trees and sing whilst doing so; often a traditional song related to their work. Various accounts suggest that they sing to counter boredom, others that it warns those nearby answering calls of nature, that someone is aloft in a tree and might catch unintended sight of unpreserved dignity! More on the sounds of Kiribati, the processes involved in this project and its findings will become available through various academic papers and filmic outputs that I’ll post links to in a future blog once they are produced by the team.

Getting Things Done in Kiribati

It’s hard to hit the ground running in Kiribati. The heat and humidity immediately demand a slow-down in pace, bearings to be found, logistics to be sorted and of course, jet lag to be overcome. It probably took us three days before we felt that we were in a ‘go’ position and ready to venture forth, permit in hand, coated in sunblock and Deet, us slimy white imotangs, slithered uncomfortably into a seemingly sun-drenched paradise of coconut palms, turquoise lagoon and wonderful, happy people, to press ‘record’ and observe the world unfurling before us (haha…if only)!

There’s a Kiribati ‘way’ of things. There’s ‘Kiribati time’ (a loose concept where punctuality is appreciated but not expected). There’s Kiribati cultural protocol to be followed (meeting the mayor or local councillor, visiting the local shrine and paying respects by making offerings). The most successful way to progress with anything, we have found is to ride the flow, which might not be as speedy as one is accustomed to, but ultimately yields better outcomes, particularly in terms of academic research, where authenticity is key.

Our intention is to spend more time on this visit living with communities on outer islands. We’ve already spent six days with the lovely people in the village of Ribono, on the island of Abaiang and have learned much through observing and listening. I can’t reveal detail here as it will form part of the academic outputs but to say that sound plays an important role in the day to day lives of the communities here and I’ve taken great pleasure in listening and recording immersively. We quickly adjust to the boundarylessness of coexistence between people and other species. Open sided dwellings situated close to each other through which mice, spiders, ants, cockroaches and geckos move freely and under which dogs, pigs, poultry and the odd cat do the same. The space between species is as fluid as the space between the living and the dead in Kiribati culture.

Planes, Boats and Automobiles

I want to take my main kit as carry-on on the plane and put spares in the hold. If I end up in Kiribati without my main kit, I’ll be well miffed. The carry-on allowance is 7Kg, my bag weighs in at 14Kg. No-one bats an eye. Not at Heathrow, not at Los Angeles, not at Fiji. The hold luggage allowance is 23Kg. My first attempt at a bag-pack weighs in at 25.6Kg. It’s amazing how much weight can be saved by ditching a few pairs of pants, some flip-flops and bags within bags. I get my weight down to 23Kg exactly.

We’ll be island hopping via ferries and speedboats. I buy a 40L and a 60L dry bag to go inside my 40L TT Carry-on rucksack and my aged roll along hold-all (hold luggage) respectively, so that any mishaps whilst transferring between water-borne vessels won’t lead to the destruction of my kit. Also, after my 2015 experience here, where, on the last day of filming my mixer’s (Sound Devvices 302) phantom power circuit failed (subsequently diagnosed as moisture ingress…which must have been from humid conditions, because it was kept well away from direct water contact) I buy a few largish bags of silica desiccant to keep in strategic places to prevent similar damage to new and hired-in kit. I also buy a decent life vest, as I’m unsure what provision (if any) will be made by boat service providers. My memory of our last visit is that I didn’t wear one at all. The airline’s guidelines suggest that I have to contact them to seek official, written permission to carry the small CO2 canister and any spares (I don’t have any but would recommend anyone to carry a couple) in the hold. Permission is granted. I also look for quick release karabiners or similar clips to go between my mixer harness and mixer bag, but can’t find anything at the last minute. The idea would be to have something that enables me to very quickly ditch the kit that’s slung around my neck, should I end up in the drink!

I take my drivers license as additional ID and also because we’ll be hiring a car at some point.

Dynamic risk assessments will be an important feature!

Food and Drink

The traditional staples here in Kiribati are: Fish, pork, coconut, breadfruit and taro (a tuber). There’s very little in the way of green vegetables and this is neither a nation of gardeners nor of purveyors of haute cuisine. Food seems to be viewed as a fuel rather than a delight, but nonetheless is experienced communally. I’m a vegetarian. I pack some iron supplements and consider eating fish during my trip here. So far, I still can’t bring myself to involve myself in the demise of another creature, despite the fact that it makes total sense for fish to be a crucial part of the diet here. My vegetarianism begins to feel like a western privilege; in the UK I can access avocados, quinoa, chia seeds, goji berries, cashew nuts…all manner of exotic foods from far-flung corners that can wholesomely supplement my diet and support my desire not to involve myself with the death of another being, BUT it’s not exactly sustainable is it? In a conversation with Sara, she rightly points out that we have little idea how the purchase of these non-native foods might be impacting on the lives and deaths of animals elsewhere in the world anyway; the destruction of habitats to produce these foods, the threat to wildlife and the planet in their transportation, indeed, the threat to native communities of the export of indigenous staples to the wealthy west (Quinoa is a good example of this). I begin to think about how I might sustain myself by consuming only locally sourced foods that might include fish and I’m reminded of my amazing wife, Jess Allen’s walking-art project: All In A Day’s Walk

Finding a path in life that sits well with one’s own values and principles, seems to be be a continual paradox. We draw lines that appear immoveable yet they subtly shift and beg reappraisal for new borders to be drawn, new understandings to be made.

Water, Water, Everywhere…

…But not a drop you’d be advised to drink. Clean, fresh, drinking water supply is an issue here. There are wells, there are desalination plants and rainwater collection systems but, as far as we can tell at least, no guarantee of any filtration or treatment, be it chemical or UV. That’s not to say there is none, it’s just not easy to ascertain the approach, if any, to its safety. We buy bottled water and grapple with the issues of waste in a land where landfill is scarce, material recycling non-existent and the ocean, a giant dustbin. At least our bottles will get reused for toddy collecting by the locals.

Phone and Internet

We each brought with us an unlocked mobile phone and bought a local SIM on the ATHKL network which would give us calls and data. We purchase a SIM from the ATHKL shop in Bairiki and also $50AUS of credit which the woman in the shop helps us get allocated to the phone. At this point, it’s important to dial *111HASH and select a plan. $7AUS for example will buy you 900Mb of data which will end after a week, at which point you’d renew the plan (or at any time before that if you’ve used up your quota beforehand). Without selecting a plan, data is charged for handsomely by the megabyte and before you know it, your $50 has been eaten up by apps updating in the background (yes, this happened to us). SO, also important to remember is to immediately switch data off when not using it and be careful of hooking other devices up to it via wireless hotspot; these devices might be set to only update apps over a wifi connection which they’ll think it is, if via WIFI hotspot.

The internet speed and connection reliability is poor at certain times of day. We found 11am-1pm and 7pm-11pm to be the worst and 2am to 6am to be the best (in South Tarawa). On the island of Abaiang, there is a mast and service was good when passing it by boat or if staying in a nearby village. We’ve not yet been to North Tarawa but have been told that there is a mast near the village we’ll be visiting (will update this section after the event).


I put a lot of time, thought and research into the preparation for this trip in terms of kit and methodology. The main purpose really of this blog post is to share my experience with the sound/field recording community in case the detail here is useful for others’ projects, in any small way. There’s a lot of detail here, possibly boring, possibly useful! Pictures to follow in next update and a subsequent blog post will look at how the kit and workflow panned out (or not)!

Mixer – Mics – Data

As soon as I knew that this research was going ahead, I became fixated on the idea of recording what I could in a surround sound format and creating geo-located, long recordings of ordinary life in as many locations as I can manage, if for no other reason than to create an archive of what could be heard, at those points on planet earth on the date of the recording. If inundation as a result of sea-level rise eventually necessitates migration, it might be useful for future generations to listen back to such recordings.

I don’t own the necessary kit however, so I decided to hire a Soundfield ST450 from Richmond Film Services to take along for the ride. This is where a whole load of other considerations had to be made about what kit to take with me. My lovely Sound Devices 633 was originally going to be my main mixer but, the ST450 requires four linked, line inputs, something the 633 can’t accommodate. I was looking for a smallish back up mixer/recorder anyway, so now seemed to be the right time to buy a Zooom F8 which would become my main mixer for Kiribati. With its eight channels, I can record four channels of ambisonic output from the ST450 as ISO tracks and also send a stereo image to the camera and/or my L/R mix for reference, when recording actuality AND I have two spare channels should I need to swing a boom or field a radio mic or two. The ST450 outputs line level terminating in XLRs. The F8 takes in line level on its 1/4” jack inputs, so I buy six XLR-Jack connectors (four for the WXYZ outputs and two for the stereo outputs).

My F8 arrives a few days before I leave for Kiribati, I update the firmware and check SD card compatibility. I decide to run a 256Gb card in slot 1, creating an aggregate of all recordings for the entire trip and a 16Gb in slot 2 for my dailies. I take an additional 256 Gb card with me as I’m unsure how much ambisonic stuff I’ll be doing: duration and track counts on a month long project could potentially push me over a single 256Gb card limit. I also pack three 16Gb cards as there’s a chance that our download and back-up regime could become compromised due to lack of power or laptop/drive damage. Sara will be handling backups via her laptop and multiple bus-powered drives.

For a while I’ve been contemplating swapping my trusty Sennheiser MKH60 for an MKH 8060 and now seems like an ideal time to make the move, so that I can benefit from the 8060’s smaller size and lighter weight. I buy one, together with the Rycote WS1 MZL basket and windjammer, from SOUNDKIT The WS1 MZL houses the 8060 WITHOUT the XLR module and comes with the necessary connbox and cable to plug into the 8060 without the XLR module.

I plan to take my cheaper 16 channel Micron Explorer radio mic kits with Sanken Cos 11s. I plug everything up to test it all out and, in my haste, use my Audio Wireless RX powering cable (that doesn’t have an in-line voltage regulator) and quickly become aware of a burning smell. Off the units go to Tanky at Micron Wireless and I’m now committed to taking my Audio Wireless units instead. More haste, less speed.

I also pack two JRF contact mics and a JRF hydrophone and necessary connectors.

I decide to also buy into the excellent low profile URSA chest and waist straps from Wendy’s Broadcast for mounting radio mics and transmitters. I know that a lot of people in Kiribati wear T-shirts and these straps might well help me out. I buy two universal chest straps and two large/two medium waist straps.

I also purchase a set of coloured knobs made specially for the F8 to make it easier to identify channels quickly and to operate the small F8 knobs. Supplied by Erik at EFK Sound (link to follow in next update)

Power – Timecode – Bag

We’ll be working in remote communities, possibly with no access to a power supply. The airlines we’re flying with have regulations about carrying Lithium Ion batteries. Two per person as carry-on luggage and not rated more than 100Wh. I’m going to need the Audioroot battery system that has a fuel gauge and distro BG-DH MKii so I can carefully monitor and manage power on location, with two of their 98Wh batteries, I shell out for all the necessary kit from Pinknoise and also take my Hawk Woods DV battery distro and four NP batteries. If they get confiscated at customs, so be it, but if they don’t, I get myself some more juice. They don’t get confiscated…happy days!

I’m also looking for some kind of portable solar power panel that can charge small items, in particular my timecode devices: 2xTimecode Systems Ultra Sync One units from Soundkit. I bought the Wave+2XUSO bundle but decided that for this job, the additional functionality the Wave would bring me was outweighed by its size and weight. I’m advised by sound recordist Bal Rayat that the RAVpower foldable solar panel would be exactly the bit of kit I need to charge my small items using the sun’s rays. (Link and picture to follow when I’m blessed with better internet connection)!

AND…just in case I need to keep the USO units or small devices like a phone, charged up and solar or other options aren’t viable, I ask cable maestro Stuart Torrance (link to follow) to make up a Hirose to USB cable so that I can power from my Audioroot system.

I now also need a mixer bag to house the F8 and decide, after a bit of research, on a Sachtler SN607. It can house the mixer, the ST450, an Audioroot battery monitor, two Audio Wireless receivers, two AW transmitters, 3xCos 11’s, some radio mic fixing gubbins, spare cards, and an Audiorroot 98Wh battery and shoe.

Backup Mixer and Mics

If the F8 or my 8060 fails me on the other side of the world where there’s no access to spares, I need a fallback system. Whilst not the most professional piece of kit on the market, the Zoom H6 with the addition of the plug-on xlr capsule, the XY mic capsule and the shotgun capsule offers me a back up in the event of complete mic and mixer failure in my main kit. Ok, the sound quality won’t be anything to get excited about but at least we won’t be going home with mute footage and the prospect of a silent movie! The additional XLR module would enable me to still run the ST450 mic and either a stereo mix OR boom and radios, so there’s some flexibility here.

Earwax and Jabs

Prior to travel I get jabbed up but there’s a shortage of the Hepatitis A inoculation in the UK until 2018, so I book in to an STA clinic the day before departure where they have some stock (I found the consulting nurse there, extremely helpful and knowledgable), I paid for the consultation and jab, but it was worth it. I can’t remember exactly the amount, but it didn’t seem extortionate. I also get my ears cleaned out using the microsuction technique. There are clinics across the UK and I go to Better Being in Llandrindod Wells as it ties in with my travel plans.

In my next blog post, I’ll be reporting back on how the kit performed, issues I experienced and my thoughts on what I would do differently next time, and why!